Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bulletin

Statements to the Congress

Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bulletin

Statements to the Congress

Article excerpt

Statement by Edward M. Gramlich, Member, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Committee on Finance, U.S. Senate, September 9, 1998

I am pleased to appear before the committee to testify on social security reform. I speak for myself, as past chair of the 1994-96 Quadrennial Advisory Council on Social Security, and not in my current status as a member of the Federal Reserve Board.

Let me first engage in some retrospection. At the time our Advisory Council released its report in early 1997, there was much publicity about the fact that we couldn't agree on a single plan but had three separate approaches. Since that time it strikes me that there has been a coalescence around the middle-ground approach I advocated. After our report, both the Committee for Economic Development (CED) and Senator Moynihan came out with plans that were similar to my plan and adopted some of its features. Earlier this year the National Commission on Retirement Policy (NCRP) came out with a similar plan, again adopting some features of my plan. In political terms the center seems to be holding--since our report there has been increased interest in sensible middle-ground approaches, and I would encourage this committee to work in that direction.

In trying to reform social security, I have stressed the importance of two goals. The first is to make affordable the important social protections of this program that have greatly reduced aged poverty and the human costs of work disabilities. The second is to add new national saving for retirement--both to help individuals maintain their own standard of living in retirement and to build up the nation's capital stock in advance of the baby boom retirement crunch.


My compromise plan, called the Individual Accounts (IA) Plan, achieves both goals. It preserves the important social protections of social security and still achieves long-term financial balance in the system by what might be called kind and gentle benefit cuts. Most of the cuts would be felt by high-wage workers, with disabled and low-wage workers being largely protected from cuts. Unlike the other two plans proposed in the Advisory Council report, there would be no reliance at all on the stock market to finance social security benefits and no worsening of the finances of the Health Insurance Trust Fund.

The IA plan includes some technical changes such as including all state and local new hires in social security and applying consistent income tax treatment to social security benefits. These changes go some way to eliminating social security's actuarial deficit.

Then, beginning in the twenty-first century, two other measures would take effect. There would be a slight increase in the normal retirement age for all workers, in line with the expected growth in overall life expectancy (also proposed by the CED, Senator Moynihan, and the NCRP). There would also be a slight change in the benefit formula to reduce the growth of social security benefits for high-wage workers (also proposed by the CED and NCRP). Both of these changes would be phased in very gradually to avoid actual benefit cuts for present retirees and "notches" in the benefit schedule (instances when younger workers with the same earnings records get lower real benefits than older workers). The result of all these changes would be a modest reduction in the overall real growth of social security benefits over time. When combined with the rising number of retirees, the share of the nation's output devoted to social security spending would be approximately the same as at present, limiting this part of the impending explosion in future entitlement spending.

These benefit cuts alone would mean that high-wage workers would not experience rising real benefits as their real wages grow, so I would supplement these changes with another measure to raise overall retirement (and national) saving. …

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